Buddhist Monk Keeps Olympic Dream Alive
Following moderate success representing Japan at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, slalom canoeist and Buddhist monk Kazuki Yazawa remains determined to realize his dream of winning Olympic gold when Tokyo takes its turn hosting the Olympic Games in 2020.
“Of course I want to compete in Tokyo. It will be the only chance in my life to compete at an Olympics in Japan,” the monk said in an interview. “But it’s pretty hard to win an Olympic medal if you also happen to be a monk. To set your heart on winning a medal, you have to be completely focused. Otherwise it’s impossible.” (Japan Today)
Yazawa came 11th in the men’s canoe slalom (K-1) in Rio de Janeiro this year, marking the third time that the 27-year-old has competed at the Olympic level. Yazawa first entered the men’s K-1 canoe slalom at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he was unsuccessful in passing through the qualifying round. He made an improved showing at the London Olympics in 2012, where he qualified for the final round of the same event and finished 9th. In April last year, Yazawa won the all-Japan canoe slalom tournament and in the following September qualified for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics at the Canoe Slalom World Championships the following September.
Yazawa continues to train at a nearby river each afternoon in addition to keeping up with his monastic duties at Daikanjin, a temple in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, where Yazawa has been a novice monk since 2013. “Obviously now I don’t have enough time for my kayak training but I get to enjoy the sport in its purest form,” Yazawa noted. “I still want to win though. That hasn’t changed.” (Japan Today)
But while Yazawa can no longer spend as much time as he might like sharpening his kayaking skills, he can count on the support of senior sangha members, who have encouraged Yazawa to pursue his Olympic dream alongside his monastic duties. “We all want him to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics,” said senior monk Shinjun Denda. “We will all be cajoling him and pushing him to compete.” (Japan Today)
Daikanjin, which belongs to the Tendai school of Japanese Buddhism, forms part of the historic temple complex Zenko-ji, which dates back to the 7th century. Founded before Buddhism in Japan split into different schools, Zenko-ji represents both the Tendai and Jodo-shu schools of Buddhism.
Yazawa’s decision to take monastic vows was inspired by his mentor Kenei Koyama, chairman of Nagano’s canoeing association and also the head priest at Daikanjin. “I didn’t have an epiphany—I simply wasn’t interested in becoming a priest,” Yazawa recalled. “[But] I really looked up to my teacher [Koyama] and wanted to become like him, someone who will be there to help people.” (Japan Today)
But much like his athletic aspirations, navigating the monastic channel hasn't all been plain sailing, Yazawa acknowledged. “The first two months of monastic training were in the mountains. You wake up at 2am and study until 10am, sat with your legs crossed the whole time. The food is very basic and you have to do the cleaning. It’s tough.” (Japan Today)
Sitting before the temple’s main altar, he noted the important place that Buddhism now holds in his life. “When you come to a place like this you feel your heart relax. It helps control your feelings when you’re competing under pressure. But if you don’t control your own thoughts, you won’t get any help from above,” he said. “I don’t feel that because I’m a priest my kayak goes any faster, but I do feel that the Buddha is protecting me. You must have a goal and dedicate yourself to it. If you do that, then it’s in the last split-second where Buddha will help you.
“I don’t do anything particularly religious before I get into the canoe, but I believe if I focus hard enough, the Buddha will give me a gentle push on the water.” (Japan Today)
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